Mutual Benefit

Let employees design their own headquarters? Here’s how a biotech company nurtures people with imaginative benefits, keeping them happy, loyal — and productive.

Imagine a sharply angled building with walls of sea-green glass. Just inside the front door is an auditorium full of people doing aerobics. Past the auditorium is a two-story white hallway flooded with light from outside. The left wall is adorned with stars bearing people’s names; the right leads to meeting rooms with brightly colored walls and furniture. Upstairs, the walls are decorated with photos of smiling people at parties and on camping trips. Beside the stairs, a man in jeans carries on a cheerful conversation about fermentation with someone on the second floor. Believe it or not, this is not a high school or a college campus. This is a biotech company.


Genencor International’s headquarters in Palo Alto are the physical manifestation of what happens when you effectively transform employees into designers of their own work environment. The 1,260-employee, $380 million company, which focuses on health-care products and enzymes, such as those used in Tide laundry detergent, has generated remarkable worker loyalty and greater productivity. Its turnover rate was less than 4% in 2003. The national industry average is 18.5% and the Bay Area’s is 17.8%, according to the Radford Surveys. This isn’t a one-year blip either. When the economy was roaring in the late 1990s, Genencor’s turnover rate hovered around the same level.

Its creative benefits programs earned Genencor the number-four slot on a list of the best medium-sized companies to work for, created by the Great Place to Work Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management. And the company generates approximately $60,000 more revenue per employee than its largest competitor, Novozymes.

Since Genencor’s birth as a joint venture between Genentech and Corning in 1982, the company has been an exemplar of employee involvement. Most dramatically, when Genencor built its headquarters in 1996, it took the unconventional step of giving its employees a say in the design. Scientists requested that the labs be along the building’s exterior so they could receive natural light. “I’ve worked in labs without windows,” says staff scientist Fiona Harding, “and seeing the sun makes the time spent in the lab much more pleasant.” Because of design, management believes its scientists are more creative.

For everyone else, the building features a “main street,” and just as in a small town, employees congregate there to collaborate and interact throughout the day. CEO Jean-Jacques Bienaime believes that these employee-driven design features lead to a more stimulating workplace. “If you want employees to be productive, you have to create a nurturing environment and let them be creative,” he says.

But at Genencor, creativity doesn’t start and end on a lab bench or at an office desk. It extends to the company’s core human- resources policies. HR director Jim Sjoerdsma designs Genencor’s programs by regularly polling employees about which benefits they enjoy and which they would like the company to offer. “We found that we had more employees at work doing personal business, and at home doing work,” he explains. “We needed creative solutions.” And employees embrace being involved in the process of designing their work lives. “There is a philosophy here of supporting an employee’s entire lifestyle because it will make for a better employee and facilitate productivity, which it does,” says Cynthia Edwards, Genencor’s vice president of technology.

Besides the normal benefits are offerings that go beyond the expected. Sure, Genencor offers routine commuter assistance programs, such as free train and bus passes. But it also has bikes and cars that can be signed out by employees who rely on public transportation if they need to run errands during the day. Genencor has developed a number of on-site services that let employees do errands without leaving work, such as dry cleaning, photo processing, and eyeglass repair. An oil-change program is on hold for the moment as Genencor switches providers. And an on-site dental program will debut in the next few months. (A concierge service, which helped employees arrange home repairs, make dinner reservations, and book travel plans, was mostly a bust. When Sjoerdsma realized that the travel arrangements were by far the most popular feature, he kept only the travel agency.)


Genencor extends emergency child care to employees through Children First, a perk more typically found at larger companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb and Pfizer. Genencor employees can use Children First up to 20 days a year. The company, in turn, saves 40 days a month in lost time.

Although all of these programs sound expensive, Sjoerdsma insists they’re not. He estimates that the cost of the company’s on-site service benefits amounts to only an additional $700 per employee, “a drop in the bucket” compared with the cost of recruiting and training workers, which he estimates at $75,000 per new employee. The more employees Genencor keeps happy, the more it saves. “These programs pay for themselves,” Sjoerdsma says.

The upshot of all this is a company culture that celebrates every success. Workers nominate exceptionally productive colleagues for recognition, and it’s the kind of place where employees have a party every Friday afternoon so they can get to know one another better. Ask any employee what it would take for them to leave Genencor, and the answer is always the same: They’re staying put.